Sons of Light

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St. Peter’s Basilica, Photo by Chad Greiter on Unsplash

The people answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Christ remains forever; and how can you say, “The Son of Man must be lifted up”? Who is this Son of Man?’

“Then Jesus answered them, ‘A little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.'” — John 12:34-36

“For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light.” — Ephesians 5:5-13

Come to Rifle Satan’s Fold

Peter Leithart suggests we all learn Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of ‘This Little Babe’ during Advent this year. It’s a good suggestion:

Lyrics:

This little babe so few days old,
is come to rifle Satan’s fold.
All hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmored wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
his naked breast stands for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
his arrows looks of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall,
his bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
of shepherds he his muster makes.
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
the angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul with Christ join thou in fight;
stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward;
this little Babe will by thy guard.

If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
then flit not from this heavenly boy!

Or, if you’ve got the time, find ‘This Little Babe’ in Britten’s full ‘Ceremony of Carols’ here:

 

Burning Metal Flows

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An antifascist banner over a street in a besieged Madrid

Pablo Neruda was removed from his post as Chilean consul in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The poet was learning his communism through opposition to General Franco, who was turning Spain more and more toward fascism. In his poem “I Explain Some Things,” Neruda writes of the destruction of the war in Madrid:

You will ask: And where are the lilacs?
And the metaphysics laced with poppies?
And the rain that often beat
his words filling them
with holes and birds?

I’ll tell you everything that’s happening with me.

I lived in a neighborhood
of Madrid, with church bells,
with clocks, with trees.

From there you could see
the dry face of Castilla
like an ocean of leather.

My house was called
the house of flowers, because everywhere
geraniums were exploding: it was
a beautiful house
with dogs and little kids.

Raúl, do you remember?
Do you remember, Rafael?
Frederico, you remember,
from under the earth,
do you remember my house with balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
Hermano, hermano!

Everything
was great voices, salty goods,
piles of throbbing bread,
markets of my Argüelles neighborhood with its statue
like a pale inkwell among the carp:
oil flowed into the spoons,
a loud pulse
of feet and hands filled the streets,
meters, liters, sharp
essence of life,
piled fish,
texture of rooftops under a cold sun that
wears out the weathervane,
fine delirious ivory of the potatoes,
tomatoes repeating all the way to the sea.

And one morning everything was burning
and one morning the fires
were shooting out of the earth
devouring beings,
and ever since then fire,
gunpowder ever since,
and ever since then blood.
Bandits with airplanes and with Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars making blessings,
kept coming from the sky to kill children,
and through the streets the blood of the children
ran simply, like children’s blood.

Jackals the jackal would reject,
stones the dry thistle would bite then spit out,
vipers the vipers would despise!

Facing you I have seen the blood
of Spain rise up
to drown you in one single wave
of pride and knives!

Traitor
generals:
behold my dead house,
behold Spain destroyed:
yet instead of flowers, from every dead house
burning metal flows,
yet from every hollow of Spain
Spain flows,
yet from every dead child rises a rifle with eyes,
yet from every crime bullets are born
that one day will find the target
of your heart.

You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!

(taken from The Essential Neruda, pp 63-67and translated by Mark Eisner)

The Laugh of a Blue-eyed Maiden

In his 1890 poem, An Imperial Rescript, Rudyard Kipling sees the proposed social reforms of the German Kaiser rejected when men remember their families:

Now this is the tale of the Council the German Kaiser decreed,
To ease the strong of their burden, to help the weak in their need,
He sent a word to the peoples, who struggle, and pant, and sweat,
That the straw might be counted fairly and the tally of bricks be set.

The Lords of Their Hands assembled; from the East and the West they drew —
Baltimore, Lille, and Essen, Brummagem, Clyde, and Crewe.
And some were black from the furnace, and some were brown from the soil,
And some were blue from the dye-vat; but all were wearied of toil.

And the young King said: — “I have found it, the road to the rest ye seek:
The strong shall wait for the weary, the hale shall halt for the weak:
With the even tramp of an army where no man breaks from the line,
Ye shall march to peace and plenty in the bond of brotherhood — sign!”

The paper lay on the table, the strong heads bowed thereby,
And a wail went up from the peoples: — “Ay, sign — give rest, for we die!”
A hand was stretched to the goose-quill, a fist was cramped to scrawl,
When — the laugh of a blue-eyed maiden ran clear through the Council-hall.

And each one heard Her laughing as each one saw Her plain —
Saidie, Mimi, or Olga, Gretchen, or Mary Jane.
And the Spirit of Man that is in Him to the light of the vision woke;
And the men drew back from the paper, as a Yankee delegate spoke: —

“There’s a girl in Jersey City who works on the telephone;
We’re going to hitch our horses and dig for a house of our own,
With gas and water connections, and steam-heat through to the top;
And, W. Hohenzollern, I guess I shall work till I drop.”

And an English delegate thundered: — “The weak an’ the lame be blowed!
I’ve a berth in the Sou’-West workshops, a home in the Wandsworth Road;
And till the ‘sociation has footed my buryin’ bill,
I work for the kids an’ the missus.  Pull up!  I’ll be damned if I will!”

And over the German benches the bearded whisper ran: —
“Lager, der girls und der dollars, dey makes or dey breaks a man.
If Schmitt haf collared der dollars, he collars der girl deremit;
But if Schmitt bust in der pizness, we collars der girl from Schmitt.”

They passed one resolution: — “Your sub-committee believe
You can lighten the curse of Adam when you’ve lifted the curse of Eve.
But till we are built like angels — with hammer and chisel and pen,
We will work for ourself and a woman, for ever and ever, amen.”

Now this is the tale of the Council the German Kaiser held —
The day that they razored the Grindstone, the day that the Cat was belled,
The day of the Figs from Thistles, the day of the Twisted Sands,
The day that the laugh of a maiden made light of the Lords of Their Hands.

For Joy, For Ease

septs painting

The Beekeeper’s Daughter by Henry Bacon, 1881

Osip Mandelstam’s poem, The Necklace, as translated by Christian Wiman:

Take from my palms, for joy, for ease,
A little honey, a little sun,
That we may obey Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat unmoored.
Fur-shod shadows can’t be heard,
Nor terror, in this life, mastered.

Love, what’s left for us, and of us, is this
Living remnant, loving revenant, brief kiss
Like a bee flying completed dying hiveless

To find in the forest’s heart a home,
Night’s never-ending hum,
Thriving on meadowsweet, mint, and time.

Take, for all that is good, for all that is gone,
That it may lie rough and real against your collarbone,
This string of bees, that once turned honey into sun.

Lewis on Eliot

C.S. Lewis ends his A Preface to Paradise Lost with a praise of middle things:

c.s. lewis a preface to paradise lostFinally there is the class [that is, of poets] to which Mr. Eliot himself probably belongs. Some are outside the Wall because they are barbarians who cannot get in; but others have gone out beyond it of their own will in order to fast and pray in the wilderness. ‘Civilization’–by which I here mean barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power–hates civility from below: sanctity rebukes it from above. The round table is pressed between the upper milestone (Galahad) and the nether (Mordred). If Mr. Eliot  disdains the eagles and trumpets of epic poetry because the fashion of this world passes away, I honour him. But if he goes on to draw the conclusion that all poetry should have the penitential qualities of his own best work, I believe he is mistaken. As long as we live in merry middle earth it is necessary to have middle things. If the round table is abolished, for every one who rises to the level of Galahad, a hundred will drop plumb down to that of Mordred. Mr. Eliot may succeed in persuading the reading youth of England to have done with robes of purple and pavements of marble. But he will not therefore find them walking in sackcloth on floors of mud–he will only find them in smart, ugly suits walking on rubberoid. It has all been tried before. The older Puritans took away the maypoles and the mince-pies: but they did not bring in the millennium, they only brought in the Restoration. Galahad must not make common cause with Mordred, for it is always Mordred who gains, and he who loses, by such alliance.

Intelligent Wine

The obscure man drinking wine is taught and reminded of his obligations. From Pablo Neruda’s ‘Ode to Wine’:

I love the light of a bottle
of intelligent wine
upon a table
when people are talking.
That they drink it,
that in each drop of gold
or ladle of purple,
they remember
that autumn toiled
until the barrels were full of wine,
and let the obscure man learn,
in the ceremony of his business,
to remember the earth and his duties,
to propagate the canticle of the fruit.

winetable

A Lost Power

In which C.S. Lewis calls me a phony:

Once, if you wanted an ode to celebrate your victory at the games, you went to the poet (Pindar or another) and ordered it, just as you ordered your banquet from the cook; and you had the same chance of getting a good poem, if you chose a good poet, as of getting a good dinner, if you chose a good cook. … A poet who could not practise his art to order would then have been no less ridiculous than a surgeon who could not operate or a compositor who could not print except when ‘inspired’.

But in the last few centuries we have unquestionably lost the power of fitting art into the processes of life –of producing a great work to fill up a given space of wall in a room or a given space of time in an evening’s festivity. The decay of the hymn (for there was no difficulty about it in the Middle Ages) is only one instance of this general phenomenon. I do not doubt that this escape of poetry from the harness is a very great evil, and a very bad omen for the future of the culture in which it has occurred… (Image and Imagination, 159)

Though it’s certainly not what Lewis had in mind, that phrase “the power of fitting art into the processes of life” brought to my mind Alexey Kondakov’s work. Surely a poet with eyes could look at Kondakov’s creations and see a poem or two:

alexey kondakov lady and angel

 

just so long and long enough

Shortly after Thanksgiving I promised my cousin an explanation of what I thought was going on in [as freedom is a breakfastfood] by E.E. Cummings. Here we are in March, and I’m finally paying my debts. First, the poem:

as freedom is a breakfastfood
or truth can live with right and wrong
or molehills are from mountains made
—long enough and just so long
will being pay the rent of seem                                                     5
and genius please the talentgang
and water most encourage flame

as hatracks into peachtrees grow
or hopes dance best on bald men’s hair
and every finger is a toe                                                                 10
and any courage is a fear
—long enough and just so long
will the impure think all things pure
and hornets wail by children stung

or as the seeing are the blind                                                        15
and robins never welcome spring
nor flatfolk prove their world is round
nor dingsters die at break of dong
and common’s rare and millstones float
—long enough and just so long                                                    20
tomorrow will not be too late

worms are the words but joy’s the voice
down shall go which and up come who
breasts will be breasts thighs will be thighs
deeds cannot dream what dreams can do                                25
—time is a tree(this life one leaf)
but love is the sky and i am for you
just so long and long enough

Eating peaches from hatracks and hearing the wails from hornets done wrong are such suggestive images that I confess to having liked this poem when it still appeared to me to be a string of nonsense lines arranged in whatever order might seem most pleasing. I still think much of the poem is nonsense, but it’s a deliberate nonsense, and repays a closer look.

Similes do most of the work in the first three stanzas, as the narrator picks two things up and puts them side by side. He then carries that pair over to another pair to see how they look as neighbors. Is freedom a breakfastfood in the same way that truth can live with right and wrong? Well, not quite. That doesn’t seem to mean anything. But can truth live with right and wrong in the same way that molehills are made out of mountains? Very nearly. If truth resigns itself to (“can live with”) the inevitability of right and wrong actions–as opposed to delighting in actions obedient to truth itself–this is much the same as making smaller troubles (“molehills”) out of larger ones (“mountains”) because the mountainous troubles are too great. And if resignation is what we’re meant to see as the narrator plunks lines two and three next to each other, then line one begins to make sense as well. Of all the glorious things freedom might suggest, it’s no slight to the first meal of the day to say that eating whatever one wants for breakfast is aiming pretty low.

But this way of life will only hold “long enough and just so long” (line 4). Unambitious freedom, tamed truth, and unassailable troubles all have their moment, but freedom will one day be exercised, truth will one day be obeyed, and the world will be seen as it is (molehills as molehills and mountains as mountains) rather than as it appears to be. Seem will no longer own being, but things will be according to what and how they are (line 5). Genius will not have to dance a jig for validation from those who would judge talent, and the essential light of all the above–freedom, truth, clarity, genius–will not be quenched, but will be allowed to burn high and bright (line 7).

Though I’ve taken the encouragement that water renders flame to be a euphemism for the relationship between the two elements, with “most encourage” basically doing the same work that “quenches” might, the positive aspects of encouragement also begin to prepare the reader for the reversal of the order of nature in the second stanza. Just as water doesn’t encourage flame as we normally understand that word, so too the dead wood of a hatrack does not grow and bear fruit (line 8), the barren field of a bald man’s head is a place hope may sing a dirge but not “dance best” (line 9), and fingers are not secretly toes in disguise (line 10) any more than courage is dressed up fear (line 11). If these lines describe absurdities rather than the way things are, what’s the point of introducing them?

The narrator answers by repeating his reminder that the absurdities have a shelf-life (“long enough and just so long,” line 12) and then listing two more absurdities that are as common as they are harmful. The impure believe they’ve understood purity (line 13). One who lives in darkness will gladly speak as long as he’s allowed about the light. Those who neither understand nor practice righteousness seldom question their own ability to know what righteousness looks like. They will tell you a finger is a toe. They will tell you that peaches should be ripening any time now from that hatrack in the corner. They will tell you a marriage is whatever five out of nine judges say it is, a boy is a girl, and unborn babies may be chopped up and sold for parts. And what happens when, with the innocence of a child, someone points out that these things aren’t so? The ones with the stingers cry that they’ve been stung by the hate and intolerance of the child of reality (line 14). But they’re the hornets and they’re the ones running the con.

And now that the narrator explicitly has the disorder of human nature in his sights, he doesn’t let go. Not only are things out in the world a mix of tensions and absurdities, but we ourselves undermine our own faculties (“the seeing are the blind,” line 15), define ourselves by our errors (“flatfolk” refusing to see the world is round, line 17), and set up warring factions on the silliest pretenses (dingsters vs. dongsters, line 18). This is a forgetting of what we’re made for, the same as if the robin forgot her song in spring (line 16), or words meant their opposite (“common” and “rare”), or stones began to float (line 19). It’s disorder without, and disorder within. But then for the third time we’re reminded that the contradictions the narrator has identified are passing away. These things hold true “long enough and just so long” (line 20), and here he adds that if tomorrow were the day of everything being set right, it would not be a day too late (line 21).

So then, what will this setting right be like? The narrator breaks from the pattern he’s been using in the previous stanzas to tell us: it will sound like the voice of a beloved–not words on a page, but the joy of a familiar voice (line 22). From the various Whiches, this is the one Who whom the narrator has desired his entire life (line 23). He acknowledges that sexual love has its place and a certain kind of glory to it (line 24), but those who see the pleasures of breasts and thighs as ultimate suffer from a lack of imagination–they’re fixated on the deed and cannot dream what’s ahead (line 25). The narrator clues us in: time is a tree held within the scope of the sky which is love, and the life in which we experience the disorder of creation is a small part of that tree. And because love encompasses and exceeds time’s boundaries, the narrator is able to look at everything that’s messed up in the world and declare his undying love for his beloved (lines 26-28). The formula that has appeared in each stanza to announce a coming end has been reversed to announce eternity. The groaning of life among the absurd lasts “long enough and just so long,” but the pledge of the lover to his beloved is the opposite of that and has no end: “just so long and long enough.”

A Prayer from Katherine Parr

In his book Radiant, Richard Hannula documents one of Katherine Parr’s favorite prayers:

Lord Jesus, I pray You give me the grace to rest in You above all things, and to make me prefer You above all things, and to make me prefer You above all creatures, above all glory and honor, above all dignity and power, above all health and beauty, above all riches and treasure, above all joy and pleasure, above all fame and praise. (114)

NPG 4451; Catherine Parr attributed to Master John

Katherine Parr by Master John, 1545

Parr was the last of the wives of King Henry VIII.